ACHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM
Blame the Scapegoats
“when a society becomes highly stressed, a defensive tribal mentality which blames outsiders often becomes the default posture. The stateless Jew for millennia has been the perennial outsider”
In our double parasha this week (Leviticus, chapters 16- 20) we read from some of the same passages that we read on Yom Kippur. We offer two goats. One is offered on the altar and the other, the scapegoat, is sent off into the wilderness symbolically bearing the collective sins of Israel.
This is the source for the concept of a scapegoat. It is also one of the sources for the idea of Tashlich, whereby we cast our bread upon the waters, symbolically ridding ourselves from our past year’s sins, enabling a fresh start to the new year.
Historically and politically, despotic tyrants and demagogues have chosen to blame convenient scapegoats to deflect blame and amass power. Throughout history and across civilizations, it has been the Jew, the stateless resident alien, who has been blamed for all societal ills.
Does it matter that their claims contradict each other ? Jews are simultaneously blamed for controlling the economy and leeching off it, being the source of both evil capitalism and evil communism – all at once.
The point is that when a society becomes highly stressed, a defensive tribal mentality which blames outsiders often becomes the default posture. The stateless Jew for millennia has been the perennial outsider. There have been other ethnic or ideological scapegoats, but as the case in many fields, the Jew is number one.
American society, pre and post Covid, is under high stress. Thus we now have daily mass shootings as well as the highest number of antisemitic incidents – or both, as we saw in Pittsburgh, Jersey City, and Poway.
On a global level, we see the perennial scapegoating of the new nation state of Israel, the UN’s whipping boy whose sanctions against Israel alone account for some 80 % of that organization’s attention and focus. Countries with the most abysmal human rights records sit in smug judgment. Being that the Arab and Muslim countries vote as a single bloc, and control so much of the world’s energy, Israel will likely never get a fair hearing, no matter what she does and no matter how much she gives the world.
This week we observe both Yom Hazikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Remembrance and Independence Days. We mourn the over 24,000 citizens who have died in wars and terrorism, and then celebrate the 75 years since her rebirth after nearly two millenia. All Jews must stand strong with Israel. We are most vulnerable when we turn on ourselves. History has shown that. May we learn from history. Am Yisrael Chai !
TAZRIA – METZORA
On bodily fluids – pure and impure…
“One visionary was driven by the loss of loved ones to cancer. He came up with a way to force the cancer reveal its location in its earliest stages and thus solve the problem.”
We are all very saddened to hear the news this week of the passing of yet another active and larger than life community member, Ruth Rootenberg, z”l.
Before leaving for Florida last November, she promised to be back by Passover. Indeed, she kept her word, the sign of a true Tzadekes.
Sadly, she did not return the same way she had left. Some cancers are only detected way too late and spread too fast, far too late to heal the patient. My own late father, on whose very birthday I write these words, similarly passed just as quickly from the same malady.
This week’s parasha, or double parasha, is Tazria- Metzora. Its pervasive theme concerns the awe inducing notion of bodily fluids and their connection to spiritual purity/impurity.
Let’s now get as relevant as possible. Great scientific minds have been working on the problem of early cancer detection – the earlier it is detected the higher the chance of survival. Over the last few years “liquid biopsies” have emerged on the scene. They are able to find in a blood sample proteins of cancer DNA long before a tumor would ever grow large enough to be detected by current conventional means. Non-surgical and thus non-invasive, it was a dream come true.
However, there remained a daunting problem. From which organ in the body was the cancer starting to grow ? It was frustrating. In fact, it was even more stressful for patients to learn there was a growing cancer in their body but they just didn’t know where.
One visionary was driven by the loss of loved ones to cancer. He came up with a way to force the cancer reveal its location in its earliest stages and thus solve the problem.
The company, Earli, Inc.(Earli.com), is driven by a vision to make nearly all cancers survivable by catching them in their earliest previously undetectable stages, thus saving countless lives. A mitzvah !
My sorrow at the loss of our beloved Ruth Rootenberg motivated me to do research on the state of early cancer detection. If even one life can be saved by someone reading this I will be happy. May Ruth’s memory always be for a blessing.
On Infinite Love; AHAVAT OLAM
“Human speech so often is used as a tool of deception, of the con. Dogs communicate on a level that is always pure and untainted. Dogs are our teachers, teachers of true love, not manipulative faux love.”
My dog, Smiley, passed away this past Sunday. A beautiful Siberian Husky, with bright blue eyes. He looked 99% wolf, but truth be told, he did not have an aggressive gene in his body. He could defend himself handily when needed, but he was the gentlest and friendliest of souls.
He saw in his lifetime sixteen complete revolutions of the Earth around the Sun, roughly the equivalent of 112 human years. He was trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. He never barked, but would often howl along when I picked up my instrument and started singing.
He was with me through good times and bad. For three Passover seders during the Covid shutdown when practically all public Jewish life came to a screeching halt he was with me, my faithful companion. When walking with him on long walks all the neighborhood children would rush over to ask to pet him and run their fingers through his thick fur. Little children in strollers would shout out “WOLF” and point their fingers.
I often wonder about the special connection between humans and pets, especially dogs. I think God sent us dogs to teach what it means to love unconditionally. A dog loves his human unconditionally. At first maybe because he is the source for his food and shelter, but I am convinced that it leads to a deeper form of love. An unconditional love. A dog comes to love us unconditionally. And isn’t that how a parent loves us? Isn’t that how our Father in Heaven loves us? And doesn’t Hebrew read from right to left, so that when we read the word “dog” when we are in a Hebrew frame of mind, we really cannot help but to also read it as “God?”
In fact, the word for dog in Hebrew is Kelev, which is a composite of two words – kawl and lev, which means “ALL HEART.” Dogs, like children, are all heart. All loving. All the time. Both God and His dog angels shower us with unconditional love, without limit. That is how God loves us – both as individuals and as a holy nation. Our evening prayer, Ahavat Olam, meaning “infinite love” speaks to this very idea. And the most famous Jewish prayer that practically every Jew knows, is the SHEMA YISRAEL. HEAR O ISRAEL, THE LORD, OUR GOD, IS ONE. And that central prayer is surrounded seven times in the paragraphs before and after with the root word, AHAVAH, which means…LOVE.
In this week’s parashah, Aharon HaKohen loses his two sons, Nadav and Avihu. How does he respond to such a loss? What words can he possibly come up with to express the depth of his grief and sorrow? No words are capable of expressing the rawness of such unspeakable grief. So the Torah says, “Vayidom Aharon.” And Aharon was silent. The word “dumb,” as in “silent,” in English, comes from the Hebrew word DOM. “VayiDOM Aharon.” And Aaron was silent. Whether we lose a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or G*d forbid, a child, there are no words in any language capable of properly articulating our intense sense of grief.
People always associated the inability to speak with having an intellectual deficit. Hence the common misconception that animals, lacking speech as we know it, are, well, …dumb. They intuit and comprehend so much more deeply than we give them credit. A dog has the intelligence to intuitively sense whether a person is good or bad. We humans often cannot. Human speech so often is used as a tool of deception, of the con. Dogs communicate on a level that is always pure and untainted. Dogs are our teachers, teachers of true love, not manipulative faux love.
Often, children on the autistic spectrum have been mislabeled as less intelligent because of their trouble speaking orally. But recent advances have allowed those with autism to communicate very effectively in print. And many are shocked at the depth of perception, intellect and understanding that is revealed. Let us shed the hubris of the human conceit that speech alone bestows automatic entitlement to worth. Telepathy is an underused gift that resides in the brains of us all. Quieting the mind of idle chatter helps us to tap into that channel of calm permitting us access to that untapped realm. Dogs don’t have to meditate to tap into that level. They’re already there.
Lastly, our tradition has solid advice when it comes to speech. In Pirkei Avoth it says, “Emor me’at ve’aseh harbeh.” “Say little but do much.” Most people do the opposite! And it also says in Pirkei Avoth, “it is better to say nothing and be thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt!” Truth!
Rest in Peace, dear Smiley, and may those who have lost loved ones know that they are in a place of love, surrounded by love, and immersed in the Light of the One who loves us all unconditionally.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!
CHAG KASHER VESAMEACH! HAPPY PASSOVER!
Happy Passover from my home to yours!
Remembering with you the rich traditions of Pesach, and wishing you peace and togetherness, happiness, health and prosperity always!
May all of us be redeemed from out personal Egypts which enslave us and no longer serve us. May we remember our past redemption from the Beyt Avadim – the House of Bondage, and work towards that great day when all humankind will be redeemed. May Eliyahu HaNavee, Elijah the Prophet, deem us worthy of seeing that Great Day. May it come soon.
May your seders be meaningful and joyous.
And if you will be joining us for the first night, then we’ll see you at the Seder!
Don’t forget to start counting the Omer from the second night and following.
Chag Kasher veSameach!
A Kosher and Happy Holiday!
A Shabbat HaGadol Message Before Pesach
CHILDREN OF THE YEAST
“As yeast is the catalyst in baking, so too is Israel that transforming agent of change which has the awesome capability of uplifting all of humanity. Just as yeast is among the least of the ingredients, so too is Israel the least populous of the nations. Just as yeast is less than tasty when eaten as a meal in itself, so too does Israel shine less when consumed solely in a self-absorbed disinterest with the fate of humanity.”
B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel, are called an AM SEGULA. This is often translated as “treasured nation.” Sometimes even as “chosen nation.” To be a treasured nation is admittedly very nice, as is also the status of being a “chosen nation,” although that carries some heavy baggage when it is interpreted by some as evidence of haughtiness and superiority.
But what about Israel’s relationship to humanity? As Hillel said, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Using terms such as “chosen” on some level does violence to the sense of Israel being a nation that interfaces between the particular and the general, between the national and the universal. We are also said to be a MAMLECHET KOHANIM, or a nation of priests. Indeed, just as the kohein in the Temple traditionally served as the intermediary between Israel and G*d, so too, as a mamlechet kohanim, or a “nation of priests,” does the nation of Israel then serve as the intermediary between G*d and the other nations of the world.
Israel has the opportunity of being a catalyst of blessing for all the nations of the world. Indeed, this is a fulfillment of the Abrahamic blessing that “all the nations will be blessed through you. (Genesis 3: 21)” Israel, in a sense, now becomes the yeast for the whole world. As yeast is the catalyst in baking, so too is Israel that transforming agent of change which has the awesome capability of uplifting all of humanity. Just as yeast is among the least of the ingredients, so too is Israel the least populous of the nations. Just as yeast is less than tasty when eaten as a meal in itself, so too does Israel shine less when consumed solely in a self-absorbed disinterest with the fate of humanity.
Now we understand on the deepest level why we totally eradicate any presence of chametz on Passover, the holiday marking our new status finally as a nation among the other nations of the world. The special zero-tolerance status for yeast on Passover now makes sense. The very energy expended in our total obsession with its eradication is only meant to underline and call attention to the “yeast” status of the Jewish people vis a vis its relationship to humanity. By calling attention to yeast/leaven so explicitly, the Torah wants us to understand on our national birthday (Passover) our special “yeast role” in the universe.
By the special status and attention which the Torah pays to actual, real, live yeast in the Exodus narrative and to its accompanying rites of memory and reenactment, so too should we therefore be cognizant of the people of Israel’s symbolic and yet very real status as yeast/catalysts in the rising pungent ferment that is humanity. The more we consciously incorporate Judaism into our lives, the sooner we help elevate all humanity, including ourselves, to achieve the end stage of glorious redemption and peace, and thereby fulfill our true destiny as an “am segula,” as a Catalyst Nation, the Religion/Nation of the Yeast.
Ignorance of the true meaning of the term segula has resulted in tragedy in both directions: misplaced haughtiness and arrogance on the part of some Jews who in righteous tribal anger circle the proverbial wagons to shut out the outside modern world, and has tragically provided ammunition to antisemites who claim that our so-called claim to a chosen status implies a claim of superiority which somehow justifies a negative response.
When we want something good for someone we often say, “do this as a segula.” Or sometimes it is said, “say this prayer at the kotel for forty days to find your soul mate as a segula,” or “recite this psalm on behalf of sick person as a segula,” or “wear this amulet as a segula.” So clearly, at least in the folk mind, a segula has the sense of being a catalyst, of bringing about positive change on some level.
As role models for tzedaka, culture, agriculture, education, science, the arts and humanities, with leadership roles in progressive movements for social justice, equality and better working conditions for all, Israel’s light shines brightly. We are a segula indeed. We are not perfect. If we had to be perfect we would have given up long ago. We make mistakes. We miss the mark at times. But we keep on trying to do our best.
Pesach is the celebration of the birthing of the Jewish people. Mitzrayim, Egypt, means narrow straits. We passed through the narrow straits, the birth canal, so to speak, into freedom. We were born in order to receive the Torah, and to bring its message and its teaching to the world. There is One G*d, our Heavenly Father, who wants us to love each other as we love ourselves (EX 19:18). As Hillel responded, when asked what is the central message of the Torah: “that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. All the rest is commentary.” Now more than ever, the world needs this message.
Chag Kasher ve Sameach!
“What’s Happening ? “
“In the end, that which was once a subconscious awareness shall then blossom into a fully conscious awareness. Then a new Torah shall be written, one with a large letter Alef. “
If you get a peek inside the Torah scroll, in the first word of Sefer VAYIKRA, the Book of Leviticus, you see a tiny letter Alef. Why is it tiny ?
It’s in the word that gives its name to both the parashah as well as to the entire book – VAYIKRa.
“VAYIKRa el Moshe..” “And (the Lord) called unto Moses.” Dropping the small letter Alef, Rashi explains, would read instead as VaYakar, or “it ‘happened’ to Moses.” It makes us think. It makes us struggle with the eternal question.
Were the events in the story of the Exodus just random happenstance?
Did Moses have a calling? Or did he just “happen” to wander in from exile in Midian and then just “happen” to miraculously take out an enslaved nation from the midst of the firm grip of its oppressor nation, an event which had NEVER before occurred in human history, setting an inspiring example of freedom for humanity.
In May of 1948, the British pulled out of Palestine and the Palestinian Jews declared their third independent state in 3,000 years and renamed it Israel. But war with the surrounding Arab states who vowed the dismantling of the world’s sole Jewish state, was about to break out. The world was on edge.
The combined Arab armies had about 270 tanks, 150 field guns and 300 aircraft on four fronts. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt aimed their might at the small Jewish militia with but three tanks and five artillery pieces. Israel had no air force at the start of the war. In the first critical weeks of battle, and against all odds, Israel prevailed on several fronts. It is said that their secret weapon was A.B. No, in 1948 it was not Atom Bomb. Rather, it was “Ayn Breirah,” or No Choice.
Whether it was No Choice, or the Divine hand, or both, did the Jews just “happen” to survive and win against all odds, or, like Moses, was there a sense, consciously or unconsciously, of being called to fulfill a Divine mandate in fulfillment of the words of the ancient prophets? Being mostly secular in orientation they may not have been consciously aware of their part in the Divine unfolding of history, but their miraculous victories both then and in subsequent wars make the case for a Divine “fingerprint.”
Today Israel faces dire challenges both externally as well as internally. Iran is now finally armed with nuclear weapons. Hamas and Hezbollah ring Israel with tens of thousands of Iranian missiles and drones.
In the end, Israel will survive. But the greatest threat to its survival, is of course, internal division and the politicization of its armed forces at this crucial moment in its history. Unity has always been crucial for the survival/victory of Israel and the Jewish people. Fractiousness and division always provided temptation for our enemies.
The world’s media, consciously or unconsciously, has largely forgotten and abandoned the brave women of Iran who have been standing up for their rights against the Iranian Mullahcracy. Thousands have died. Tens of thousands have been arrested. The Iranian regime was at the brink of collapse. To our great and unabiding shame, we have betrayed the brave women of Iran. We failed them. Had the world stood firm with them with sustained laser focus and sanctions, the Iranian regime would likely be no more and its Hamas and Hezbollah proxies would have lost their main benefactor. A victory for one tyranny regime is a victory for all.
And at this juncture Israel could use one last miracle. And this time its survival would and could only be seen as Divine. Passover is just around the corner. It marked the beginning of Divine intervention in history, as well as the Jewish People’s birth as a nation.
In the end, that which was once a subconscious awareness shall then blossom into a fully conscious awareness. Then a new Torah shall be written, one with a large letter Alef.
VAYAKHEL – PIKUDEI
An Innocent Question Finally Answered
“…we bear eternal witness to the everpresent Divine Light, the light from before time existed, the Light from Beyond.”
When my dad was seven years old he was deeply curious about life. Curiosity was a lifetime passion of his. He asked his teacher in his Brooklyn yeshiva a startlingly deep question, a question that stumped his frustrated rebbe (teacher in a boy’s yeshiva).
“If G*d said it was forbidden to make a fire on Shabbat, then why was Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), commanded to kindle the lights of the menorah every day, including Shabbat ? “
Good question, right?
With that, the rebbe flew into a rage. “Such a chutzpadik question, making fun of the Torah!,” he shouted.
“But Rebbe, I just want to know. I wasn’t making fun.”
It was 1927. Corporal punishment was still the norm in what passed for Jewish education in America. He was rapped hard on the knuckles with a ruler. Tears welled up in his eyes.
His father, a Russian born and educated rabbi (pre- Revolution), was appalled at such behavior, especially to one so young and sensitive, simply for sincerely wanting to know. His OWN yeshiva in Russia ENCOURAGED good questions. So he pulled my father out of the Brooklyn yeshiva world and enrolled him in public school in Brownsville. There his yearning for answers would be aptly appreciated and rewarded, laying a foundation for a life of intellectual achievement and contribution to society. My grandfather, himself a rabbi who encouraged questions, said, “if he stayed in yeshiva he’d grow up to hate the Torah,” for in those days all the yeshivas in NYC shared a similarly regressive pedagogic style.
Sadly, my grandfather correctly predicted on a societal level the consequences of this soul crushing insecure authoritarian pedagogic culture of both the yeshivas and Talmud Torahs of the day. It alienated so many of the Greatest Generation from a true love of Torah . Today there are good yeshivas as well as those that still need improvement. One cannot paint with a broad brush. But one should feel truly blessed if one finds a good yeshiva that encourages and welcomes sincere questions from children and adults of all ages.
So, dear reader, it was my life quest to find the answer to my late father’s very honest question. And the answer is to be found in this week’s double parasha, Vayakhel – Pikudei, in the opening verses of Vayakhel. “Thou shalt not kindle a flame in all your habitations on the Sabbath day.”
Here is the answer: “thou shalt not kindle a flame in all YOUR habitations..,” says the verse. The Temple Mount (Har HaBayit) with the Holy Temple ( Beyt HaMiqdash) is HASHEM’s Holy Habitation. The Temple is the time zone of the Infinite of Time and Place. It is THE Place – HaMaqom. A taste of the Beyond. Aaron, the High Priest, was the human Ambassador to the Divine Realm, kindling the Divine light, an ETERNAL FLAME that would never die out. As Kohein Gadol, he served both realms, the human and Divine. Ironically, while the Children of Israel could not kindle a flame in THEIR places of habitation, it was, AND CONTINUES TO BE, our testimony so that we bear eternal witness to the everpresent Divine Light, the light from before time existed, the Light from Beyond.
P.S. Dad, I hope you’re reading the answer to your childhood question, but by now you already know!
KI TISSA (Ki Sissaw)
Remember the Seesaws!
“From the seesaw we learn resilience. We learn that when you go down, not to worry. Soon you’ll be right black up. We also learn not to gloat over someone else’s misfortune, for soon they may be rising just as you may be falling.”
A generation ago every playground had a seesaw. Now, like the deli, the ubiquitous has now become the rare outlier.
In this parasha the Jewish people rose to their spiritually highest level when they received the Torah, and then, like a seesaw, plummeted down to the bottom tier with their worship of the golden calf.
Kee Seesaw usually is read the week of Purim, when we indeed witness these same dynamics at play. Haman is appointed viceroy of all Persia, second to thé King. And then – boom, he falls, actually tumbles from grace, as he finds himself suddenly dangling from the same noose he made for Mordecai. Now Mordecai suddenly rises and is even given Haman’s estate and the same rank and authority, second to the King himself. Punkt fakkert, as we say in Yiddish. Or Nahafoch hu, as we say in Hebrew, i,e. everything is turned upside down.
Now seesaws might hurt on occasion if you land too hard. But if you can still find one, you can learn valuable lessons from the disappearing seesaw:
We learn resilience. We learn that when you go down, not to worry. Soon you’ll be right black up. We also learn not to gloat over someone else’s misfortune, for soon they may be rising just as you may be falling.
Even as Haman made his evil decree to wipe out all the Jews, so, too, did G*d – almost, as punishment for worshiping the golden calf. Just as Esther saved her people from extinction, so too did Moses convince G*d to spare the Children of Israel. “Wipe me out of your book,” said Moses, “if You destroy your people.” And so Moses is not mentioned one iota in last week’s parasha, just as G*d is not mentioned in the Megillah. Of course, G*d is present in every moment. We just can’t see Him. This world is an illusion. But G*d is indeed real, behind the illusion. And that is why we wear masks.
In every generation there arose an enemy who sought to destroy us…
“Today in America we are being attacked and vilified by growing numbers of extremists from both sides, whose messages of hate are amplified by their mastery of social media. But when times get difficult as Jews, we get stronger and more committed to our Jewish identity. We yearn to take comfort and solace with our fellow Jews and come to synagogue to strengthen our identity and take renewed pride in our heritage.”
One of the deepest messages about Purim is conveyed by the symbolism of the mask. Nowhere in the Megillah of Esther is God explicitly mentioned – not even once! But we learn from all the plot twists and seeming coincidences that the Divine Hand is at work behind the scenes, saving the Jewish people from total destruction.
Haman and his 10 sons are hanged, foreshadowing the attempted complete genocide 2500 years later that ended with the death of Hitler and the Nuremburg trials and the hanging of his 10 henchmen. It’s all revealed in the Megillah itself!
The whole world closed its doors to the Jews, save for a trickle of refugees here and there. And the British blockade prevented millions of Jews from finding refuge in their ancient homeland. Man was created with Free Will, to do good or evil, and evil almost one the day.
Thankfully we have an Israel today! While the world population has tripled in numbers since the second world war, the Jewish world population has not even yet replaced its lost souls. Israel is the sole Jewish state, ready to take in any and all Jews in danger.
Today in America we are being attacked and vilified by growing numbers of extremists from both sides, whose messages of hate are amplified by their mastery of social media. But when times get difficult as Jews, we get stronger and more committed to our Jewish identity. We yearn to take comfort and solace with our fellow Jews and come to synagogue to strengthen our identity and take renewed pride in our heritage.
Neither Haman nor Hitler were able to destroy us, though they tried. As we read in the Passover Hagaddah next month, “in every generation there arose an enemy who sought to destroy us. So very true. Whether we win or lose, our present and our future depend on our unity as Jews and on the daily choices we make which impact our Judaism. Am Yisrael Chai! May Israel and the Jewish people live!
Colors and bells
“The color blue represents the Heavens, or spiritual essence. The red crimson represents the world of Creation, the world of red blooded animalistic lusts and desires, dominated by sin and transgression. Purple represents the Synthesis, the blending of this world and the next, the moral challenge of being human.”
The hem on the robe (me’il) of the high priest featured pomegranates of blue (techelet), purple (argaman) and crimson (toast shani) threads, alternating with a golden bell between each pomegranate.
Lots of symbolism here. The pomegranate was featured last month in our Tu Bishvat Seder. It contains 613 seeds (count them if you don’t believe me) representing the 613 mitzvoth, or ways we can connect with G*d.
The color blue represents the Heavens, or spiritual essence. The red crimson represents the world of Creation, the world of red blooded animalistic lusts and desires, dominated by sin and transgression. Purple represents the synthesis, the blending of this world and the next, the moral challenge of being human.
Indeed, the role of the priest is to be an intermediary, elevating and inspiring the human to his higher moral calling, and pleading with Hashem to judge us from His invisible Throne of Mercy, residing between the two cherubs sitting atop the cover of the Holy Ark.
In America today we have blue states and we have red states, states which typically voted Republican and states which typically voted Democrat. But since the pandemic we are seeing more purple states, where migration to rural areas has created more diverse population mixes. These are now considered swing states, where elections could go either way. Populations of diverse backgrounds living in close proximity with little in common need to learn to all get along. Or else America is in deep trouble.
But why the golden bells on the hem of the robe? Gold is the color of something so very precious. Bells are like doorbell, letting G*d know when the High Priest is entering the Holy of Holies. Now of course G*d doesn’t need bells. But we do. The Talmud teaches that we must never enter a room without first knocking. Always respect another’s boundaries. Respect and boundaries are keys to a healthy society and healthy relationships. Who knew the Torah had so much to teach us with just golden bells and pomegranates!
Make Me a Sanctuary
“But the ultimate message is that G*d does not dwell in things. He dwells in the human heart. Where people are in service to Hashem, living by the Torah’s essential mitzvah, “Love your neighbor as yourself…,” it is inside THEM where G*d dwells. Where love rules, it is THERE where S/He can be found.”
“Poof, you’re a Sanctuary!” As a little kid, living in Rockville Centre, I would hear the blender whirring on a Sunday morning and I remember begging my dad to make me a malted. Without fail, he would always say in his best magician voice, “poof, you’re a malted.” Raw eggs were an essential ingredient.
In Exodus 25:8, Hashem tells Moses, “Make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among THEM.” At first blush, you’d think this was an error. Should it not follow that if you make a Sanctuary for The Deity, the sanctuary to be built would then be for that self same Deity to Dwell therein?
As in football, we go to the video… I mean text! The Hebrew reads, “Asu li Miqdash, ve Shachanti BETOCHAM. Betocham means “in them.” If it meant to say, “in it,” would have read BETOCHO.
Well, this sounds quite significant. It’s a revolutionary notion in the history of religion. First of all, Hashem can’t be contained in a structure, whether a building or a box. And second, in the ancient mind the gods always dwelled somewhere else, whether in the heavens or in Valhalla. Man was “here.” The gods were “there.”
So what is the takeaway in the verse, “build me a Sanctuary that I may dwell in them?”
“Them” are those who built the Sanctuary. But every Israelite donated to its construction. So we learn from this verse that those who donate funds to a cause are counted as essential and receive credit for its success.
But in a larger cosmic sense, all the Earth is meant to eventually become G*d’s Sanctuary. With the Torah’s ideals of mercy, love, compassion, peace and social justice spreading forth from Zion, eventually the whole world will one day become a fitting dwelling place for the Shechinah, G*d’s indwelling Divine Presence.
But the ultimate message is that G*d does not dwell in things. He dwells in the human heart. Where people are in service to Hashem, living by the Torah’s essential mitzvah, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” it is inside THEM where G*d dwells. Where love rules, it is there where S/He can be found.
Wear and Tear
“A servant is a human being. He may not be abused in any way. His dignity is paramount, for he was created in God’s image.”
Exodus 21:3, in its discussion of Hebrew slaves, the Torah states: “im be gapo yavo, be gapo yetzei.” Goof means “body.” Gapo means “his body.” The standard translation usually reads, “with what he came in when he entered, with that so shall he leave.” In other words, if he came in single, (at the end of six years of labor) he shall leave single, even if he found and married a spouse and had children while in servitude. But here’s an alternative understanding: with the same vitality he had when entering servitude with that same level of vitality he shall leave (after serving six years). In other words, you can’t work him to (near) death to get your money’s worth out of him.
But first, I hear some of you asking, “we just left the house of bondage in Egypt, how could the Torah now permit Hebrew servitude once the people return to the Land of Israel? You mean it’s not okay for Egyptians to have Hebrew slaves but it’s okay for Jews?” The institution of Hebrew slavery answers the problem of debt resolution. If for whatever reason one is unable to pay off his debts, one may amortize his debt over six years and then go free in the seventh year. This is better than sitting in the squalor and filth of a debtor’s prison as was the case up until modern times.
But would the kind reader let me digress a tad longer…
The late Colombia University professor Richard Hofstadter, in his book “America in 1750; a Social Portrait,” argues that the majority of indentured whites who had traded a commitment of their indentured “free labor” in return for a “free” trans – Atlantic Sea passage often had worse physical outcomes than that of negro slave labor. How’s that? Come again?
African slaves bought in the slave market were slaves who were bought, intended for a lifetime of labor. It was out of a sense of self interest for getting the most from a lifetime investment that their slaves should not be overworked or abused. In spite of that logic, many still were and fell victim to nasty racist cruelty. In contrast, indentured whites were giving their free labor for a limited period. It made sense to try to get the most intensive labor from them as their date of manumission drew nearer.
The point is that while all slavery is bad, not all slavery is the same. Sadly, we still have slavery today. Black African slaves are sold in open slave auctions in Libya today, post Ghaddafi’s overthrow. And millions of young women are lured each year into hopeless lives by sex traffickers around the globe.
Back to our parashah…
Exodus 21:3 “Im be gapo yavo be gapo yetzei.” He must leave his six years of servitude with the same level of vitality with which he came. In light of Hofstadter’s research on American indentured service in the Colonial period, this Torah concept is remarkably progressive and humane. A servant is a human being. He may not be abused in any way. His dignity is paramount, for he was created in God’s image.
Update on Israel’s remarkable participation in Turkish and Syrian earthquake rescue and recovery. Despite having nearly the largest numbers of volunteers involved in rescue and recovery, and despite setting up the largest field hospital for trauma victims, the Israeli group received verified and vetted terror/death threats. After some remarkable initial successes with lives saved, they had no choice but to pack up their bags and leave early. It reminds me of the famous quote purportedly made by Golda Meir: “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.” How many additional children’s lives could have been saved had the Israelis not have been forced under threat to return home early? We will never know. May peace come soon.
One Heart/One Love
“At Sinai we were once One. And One Day soon to come, both we and the whole world will once again be One. Amen”
This week we go to the Holy Mountain. We camped around the base of the mountain with a heart of unity. Twelve tribes were we, even a mixed multitude amongst us, but with complete unity. We were One. We were united.
The Hebrew verse says Vayichan, in the singular, meaning “he camped.” But in talking about the people arriving it should have said, “vayachanu,” meaning *they* camped. The missing vav at the end, as the suffix, has now become the prefix! The letter Vav before a word always means a connection! The people were so connected in every way – to their inner Divine, to their outer Divine, and to each other! All artificial divisions were wiped away.
Today we see so many artificial divisions in Jewish life. So many labels, so many organizations. We need to remember that “Sinai moment” before receiving the Torah. We must remember that despite our superficial outer differences we remain united as One at our core, in the deepest way, with the inner values that reflect our pintele Yid.
No matter where we are in our outer journey, we must never forget our inner journey. Like Moses, we must climb our inner Holy Mountain and connect with our inner Divinity.
At Sinai, God gave us the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Important Things/Words. Five on each tablet. One tablet how we should relate to God and one tablet how we should relate to our fellow human beings.
God is our Healer. He said “take these two tablets and call me in the morning.” We shall come to see these ideas spreading and permeating through out the world. Can you imagine China and America sending love balloons to each other, proclaiming we are all one, all brothers and sisters with the same heavenly father?
We mourn the devastation, destruction and the TREMENDOUS LOSS OF LIFE in bothSyria and Turkey. These are both countries whose leaders and much of the population are terribly hostile to Jews, and yet Israel sent over one of the largest groups of volunteers to aid in the rescue and recovery operations. May the day come soon when all countries will come to see a shared brotherhood with the Jewish people and the Jewish State of Israel, and cease their hostilities and threats of violence and annihilation.
A Marriage Made in Heaven!
“May the Day come soon when we live up to our true calling so that our Divine Radiance can light up the whole world and thus be a blessing to the world and ‘A Light Unto the Nations.”
Before two souls come down from Heaven to become embodied souls with earthly families, they are shown pictures of their intended soul mates whom they are destined to meet in this world.
So why do so many have trouble finding their soul mates here on Earth? The problem is that they are often unrecognizable. No, not because of plastic surgery. That reminds me of a joke…
Mrs. Bernstein prays to Hashem for a long life. In return, she will meticulously keep kosher, keep all the laws of Shabbat, give Tzedaka regularly to both the poor and to worthy communal institutions and make special efforts to guard her tongue, refusing to speak lashon hara or to even listen to it.
In her dream, God grants her her worthy request. So the next week she celebrates this new beginning of life, this new chapter so full of blessings and promise! To celebrate she decides to have her face done to reflect this new beginning. No sooner do they remove the bandages and she leaves the office to show all her friends her new look in honor of her new “fresh start,” but she’s hit by a car and is killed. Wham. She dies and goes to Heaven. She is greeted by the Light. But instead of being grateful that she’s in the place of light and NOT in the place of darkness, she lets God have it. “You promised me a long life! So then why was I hit by a car? Why am I even in this place? I know it seems very nice here, but a promise is a promise! What kind of a God are you, who doesn’t keep his promises!?”
“Mrs. Bernstein,” God replies, “You should know that I dutifully and meticulously instructed my angels to watch over you and to guard you in all your paths… But after your surgery, they simply did not recognize you!!!”
So… back to our parashah:
Why didn’t the Red Sea part as soon as the Children of Israel reached its shores, with the Egyptian army bearing down on them? Instead, they were screaming and crying out to Hashem to save them.
Here’s the reason:
Before the Red Sea was created, God showed it a picture of its honored Beshert, its soul mate and predestined partner, the Children of Israel, who would unite and come together at the most propitious time. However, that picture was of Israel shining in its highest level of purity and holiness – its level in Heaven, but not, unfortunately, down on Earth. The Children of Israel were negatively influenced by Egyptian culture and mores and subsequently sunk in their level of sanctity from the highest level down to the penultimate level. Their credit score lost its triple A rating! They hit almost rock bottom. Out of 50 levels of Tumah (impurity), they had hit the 49th level – out of fifty. So much schmutz Had accumulated and marred their radiant purity. Had they hit rock bottom, the 50th level, they would have been permanently mired and simply unable to leave Egypt at all. They were simply unrecognizable. The image was marred. It was blurred. So much schmutz had now obscured their radiance.
So what then happened? Realizing the Sea was not immediately splitting as soon as the Children of Israel appeared at the Shore, and the people were in such dire straits, Nachshon Ben Aminadav instinctively knew what to do. He dove into the waters. All the schmutz washed off him. Suddenly the Red Sea’s Facial Recognition app kicks in! The sea sees the true face of its Beshert, the Children of Israel! Suddenly it splits and Israel is saved!
My friends, so much goodness and blessing has been bestowed upon us, the Children of Israel. But now we see much hatred, so much antisemitism, so much violence and hostility directed both at Israel and at Jews here in America and elsewhere. Perhaps they only see a marred and blurry image of us. Perhaps they can’t see the true holiness we aspire to bring down to Earth. Aaron Fuerstein, of blessed memory, when his factory, Malden Mills, burned down just before Christmas, kept every worker on his payroll until the factory could be rebuilt, instead of taking the insurance and an early retirement, THAT was a kiddush Hashem, a Sanctification of the Divine Name! But when Jews take over the Rockland school board and direct government funding to support yeshivas but cut all public spending for school programs that are meant to help minority students achieve academically and professionally, can you blame them for not seeing our light? When we ourselves don’t live up to our calling to observe not only our rituals and observances, but as, or even more, importantly, our morals and ethics, we slander our own good name. All Jews are responsible for one another! May the Day come soon when we live up to our true calling so that our Divine Radiance can light up the whole world and thus be a blessing to the world and ‘A Light Unto the Nations.”
Let My People Go where???
“Ego satisfaction and impulse gratification are the modern gods of today.”
Moses famously demands that Pharaoh let his people go. But how many of us know the whole sentence, beyond the memorable snippet? He says, “Let my people go.” “Shelach et Ami.” But what else does he say? He adds on “vaya’avduni” (and so that they may then worship me – or serve me).
The latter clause is so important, and it speaks to us today. What does it mean to be free but without that latter clause? To simply be free without any obligations leads to a range of psychosocial dysfunctions. Freedom creates a vacuum that can be filled with boredom, the ennui that begs for self destructive or socially mendacious outlets to fill that capacious void.
To serve God fills that void. It fills the void with mitzvoth, with good deeds, with study, with prayer, with acts of lovingkindness. The ego is minimized and the social fabric is strengthened beyond measure.
A whole new generation is dying from drug overdose. In fact, outside of a surgical center, there is no safe dose for fentanyl. Every day it seems that somewhere in America there is a mass shooting. Ego satisfaction and impulse gratification are the modern gods of today. Torah is the antidote that cultivates devotion to a life of service to the needs of others, the equivalent of “serving God,” in Moses’ parlance, when he stood in Pharaoh’s presence.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too, does spirituality. “You gotta serve somebody,” Bob Dylan sang. “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” While he wrote these words during his Christian exploration phase, this particular idea is consonant with Judaism. In Judaism, evil is not a fallen or rebellious angel leading man astray. Evil was created by God to test us and challenge us each and every day so that our soul may make the right choices and grow and thus vibrate at ever higher frequencies.
In the Mishna, in Pirkei Avoth, we learn, “mitzvah goreret mitzvah; aveirah goreret aveirah.” One good deed leads in its trail to another good deed (idiomatic translation of mitzvah), while one transgression leads to another in its wake. There is an evil inclination which we call the Yetzer HA-RA. And there is a good inclination which we call the Yetzer HA-TOV. Simply leaving Egyptian bondage to simply be free gives evil an opening to do its bidding. But to be free in order to serve God suffuses both our neshomas and the world with Divine Light. Words to live by!
Dam, Tzfardea, Kinim…
“Usually, it was Moses who initiated many of the plagues using his staff. But curiously, in the very first plague, he does not. He lets his brother, Aaron, initiate it. Why not Moses?”
The first seven out of the Ten Plagues are inflicted upon the Egyptians in this week’s parashah. “Shelach et Ami,” “Let my people go!” said Moses to Pharaoh. OT POSTI NAROD MOY, in Russian. The Jewish people must be free to serve God, whether held captive in ancient Egypt or in the Soviet Union!
“Let my people go,” was the rallying cry of student protesters and housewives in the late sixties, seventies and eighties, demanding svoboda – FREEDOM, for our brothers and sisters who were severely punished for trying to live as a Jew or for just asking to emigrate to live a Jewish life. Now many are living amongst us. What can we do to help them live and practice their Jewish heritage that was cruelly stripped from them? But I digress…
Usually, it was Moses who initiated many of the plagues using his staff. But curiously, in the very first plague, he does not. He lets his brother, Aaron, initiate it. Why not Moses?
Gratitude. Appreciation. It was the waters of the Nile that carried the basket containing the little baby Moses to safety, into the protective arms of Thermouthis, Pharaoh’s daughter, who later joined the Jewish people at the time of the Exodus and took the name Basya, which means, daughter of God. Parenthetically, the NY based, world music band, Pharaoh’s Daughter, is led by Basya Schechter. But I digress…
The very waters that saved his life he was going to turn into blood?! We return good with good, not good with bad! The point of the first plague was to inflict a wound upon the Nile River, which was considered a god to the Egyptians, for its life giving waters. Shoin, but let someone else do it, not Moses!
So let us learn from the example set by Moses to never forget to show appreciation to those who have helped us. In Hebrew, this is called, Hakarat HaTov, “recognizing the good.” Indeed, we are called Yehudim, or Jews, meaning the ones who give thanks. Todah, meaning “thank you,” in Hebrew, comes from the same root. We are supposed to make 100 blessings each day! God is our Creator. Let us show our appreciation by following His Torah’s teachings and ethical demands and by attending services each week to sing praises to His Holy name.
Women of Valor
“The first recorded act of civil disobedience in history was arguably the refusal of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, to heed Pharoah’s orders to kill all male Hebrew newborns.”
The first recorded act of civil disobedience in history was arguably the refusal of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, to heed Pharoah’s orders to kill all male Hebrew newborns.
Similarly, Miriam, had the wisdom and foresight to protest her parents decision to divorce so as to prevent the murders of future newborn males. They were looked up to by the people and they would set an example to be followed by the masses.
But Miriam said they would be acting worse than Pharaoh! Pharoah only wanted to kill off all the future Hebrew males. By separating, she told her parents, even future Hebrew females would never be born!
We learn from their noble examples to follow our conscience, and never to blindly follow like sheep. We should be shepherd’s, like our holy ancestors, and be true leaders. Be the shepherd, not the sheep!
Remember, where would American civil rights be today with Rosa Parks? Where would the Jewish people be today without Miriam?
“We are all players in the great unfolding.”
We conclude the Book of Genesis with the reading of parashat Vayechi. Jacob is about to die and blesses his children on his deathbed. He bitingly addresses the character of each of his sons, not mincing any words.
Upon their father’s passing, the brothers pass on a message to Joseph purportedly from their father, asking him to forgive them for what they did to him and to not seek vengeance now that their father has died.
Joseph knows it’s a complete and utter fabrication, for otherwise Jacob would have brought it up in his last words to them. He likely never knew the truth of how Joseph ended up in Egypt. But he is moved by their realization that their lives are now in his hands. He assures them that he will not seek revenge. He basks in the knowledge that his childhood dreams came true. He reassures them that they were merely the agents in G*d’s plan to save them during a time of great famine.
Joseph is known in our tradition as “Yosef haTzadik, Joseph, the Righteous,” not only for resisting the allures and adulterous advances of Potiphar’s wife (known as Zuleika, according to the Midrash), but also for harboring no ill will or desire for vengeance towards his brothers. He sees life as a gift and whatever happens in life to eventually reveal a greater Divine plan in due time. We are all players in the great unfolding.
As we transition from the story of a great family in Genesis, to the origins of a great nation and their enslavement and liberation saga in Exodus, we take pause in the realization that fraternal unity is the key to the success of their great enterprise. All of Genesis was building an upwards crescendo to finally achieving this point of family unity and harmony.
Looking back at this parashah, emulating Jacob, we could ask ourselves if we have made an ethical will in addition to a mere division of assets. Have we drawn up our expectations of our hopes and values for our children to live by once we are gone? What ethical legacy have we bequeathed to them? And do we harbor grudges from past mistreatment on the part of others? Do we hold onto that toxicity and let the poison exact its toll on us, seeping the joy out of life? Or do we let it go and move onwards and upwards?
Chazaq, Chazaq, veNitchazeq
May we be strengthened in our studies, strengthened in our deeds and continue to be a source of strength to each other. Amen.
No Brother Left Behind
“Until the brothers of Joseph remember and act like brothers, and show and live that sense of Unity, we can never inspire the nations of the world to live in unity. You have to actually walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”
This is where Judah truly shines and reveals his true character and leadership.
Through his merit the greatest Kings of Israel (Judah) emerge as well as the future messianic harbinger of the great Redemption. But first we have to redeem Benjamin, who is held prisoner by Joseph to test his brothers.
Judah swore to his father, Jacob/Israel, that he would save Benjamin, and if anything happened to Benjamin, the youngest child of beloved Rachel, he would take full responsibility.
He offers himself up in place of Benjamin and Joseph is satisfied that his brothers not only felt sufficient remorse for their evil deed, but had learned from it to never again abandon a brother, no matter what. As Maimonides teaches, one knows he’s achieved a true state of Teshuvah when one faces a similar challenge yet shows he’s learned from his errors and acts differently – and better!
Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and sends for their father. He invites them all to settle in Goshen, the best part of Egypt. Now listen carefully, friends. Goshen has the same linguistic root as Vayigash, the name of our parashah. Vayigash means, “and he approached.” Judah approached Joseph. He accepted full responsibility and the consequences thereof. He was willing to take full ownership for his decisions. So the name of the good region where they were to settle in Egypt during the duration of the famine actually reflected the essential character transformation of Judah!
So never forget that our precious legacy as Jews, the people of Judah, was forged in the crucible of torturous family dynamics. He rose above the petty jealousies that plague all families. Yehudah in Hebrew means one who gives thanks. That was his legacy of birth. But his greatest legacy was the one he earned by accepting full responsibility for his actions, along with the consequences.
Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel, aka the Jewish people, is the role model, the Light Unto the Nations, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, Yishayahu haNavee.
Until the brothers of Joseph remember and act like brothers, and show and live that sense of Unity, we can never inspire the nations of the world to live in unity. You have to actually walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
Modern Israel has absorbed millions of Jews coming back to our ancestral home, who arose from the ashes of near annihilation and fought off several further attempts to wipe us off the map. Like the Maccabees before them, our people have shown tremendous unity amidst great challenges. Unity sometimes takes great struggle to overlook the differences which tend to separate us. But when we overcome our biases and prejudices and work for the common good we show the world what a true unity of kindness and compassion looks like. We are only .2% of the world population, but the world looks at us, learns from us, and is inspired by us. Those who hate us actually hate G*d, and since they can’t lash out at G*d, they act their frustrations out on His beloved people, the people and Nation/State of Israel. By being like Judah, by showing appreciation in good times and bad, and by taking responsibility for our actions and living in synchronicity with our Holy Torah, we become beloved to G*d and beloved to the nations. Our Unity will bring the Unity we will one day witness in that great day – the Messianic Age of Redemption.
Coincidence or Providence?
“Had the rebellion failed, Judaism’s novel mission of ethical monotheism would have disappeared and the light of Torah would have been snuffed out as the world descended into utter amoral darkness of paganism and depravity.”
Our Torah commentary tells us that we always read parashat Miketz during the week of Chanukah. Echoing the theme of Chanukah, where the weak and few in number conquer the strong and mighty army, in Pharaoh’s dream, the weak and skinny cows devour the fat and healthy cows.
Similarly, Joseph begins the parasha rotting in a filthy prison, an innocent man in a living hell, falsely accused of a crime he’d never done, and miraculously rises to become ruler of all Egypt. This strikingly parallels the saga of Judaea’s oppression and the lightning rise of the Maccabees.
The Seleucid Greeks sought to destroy the spiritual life of Israel and impose by force the Greek religion. Shabbat observance was banned, as was the study of the Torah, circumcision and the following the laws of kashruth. Altars to Zeus were erected and Jews were forced to eat pork. The Maccabees said “enough,” genuck shoyn! The miracle of the oil was a Divine sign that Heaven was helping the cause of the Torah faithful. Had the rebellion failed, Judaism’s novel mission of ethical monotheism would have disappeared and the light of Torah would have been snuffed out as the world descended into utter amoral darkness of paganism and depravity.
This coming Shabbat we take out three sefer Torahs: one for Shabbat, one for Chanukah and one for Rosh Chodesh Tevet! But whether we do or not depends on YOU. Please make every effort to arrive to Shabbat morning services by 10:30.
Jacob Wrestles with the Angel
“That which we struggle with most in life may possibly be that very reason our soul came down to repair itself and to do its work in this world.”
One of the most memorable episodes in the entire Torah is in this week’s parashah. Jacob makes preparations with his family for their potentially fatal imminent encounter with Esav and his forces. The night prior to the encounter Jacob finds himself wrestling until dawn with an angel, some say Esav’s angel. Some say his lower and higher selves wrestled with each other for dominance. Either way, Jacob prevailed in the end but sustained a limp from an injured sciatic nerve. Until this very day Jews refrain from eating the rump, unless the sciatic nerve and its associated vein have been removed, an expensive process called treiboring, in Yiddish. As dawn breaks, the Angel pleads to be let go and blesses Jacob with a new name – Israel, before he takes leave. Israel literally means “G*d Wrestler.”
Other religions that branched off from Judaism compel its adherents to assume a submissive posture in serving the Creator. By contrast, the Children of Israel are called upon to follow in Jacob’s footsteps and be in a constant state of wrestling with G*d and with our innermost natures, tendencies and impulses. The struggle itself in its own right is holy.
That which we struggle with most in life may possibly be that very reason our soul came down to repair itself and to do its work in this world.
If we can reframe our perspective, we may possibly see the positive and hopefully, before shucking these mortal coils, assume an attitude of gratitude, so very hard as that may seem at times. Wrestling is never easy. And Jacob? My has he grown, coming a long way, from being a mama’s boy to becoming a G*d Wrestler!
May we gird ourselves in mighty prayer in order to, like our father Jacob, successfully face the daily encounters awaiting us each day.
Mirrors all around us!
“People we meet in life just may be the human mirrors we need in order to learn important lessons.”
Jacob flees from his brother, Esav, and finds his way to his Uncle Laban’s house, where he hopes to find sanctuary, peace of mind and a wife. At the well he meets Rachel, coming with her flock, and instantly falls in love. He asks his uncle for her hand in marriage. Now Laban (Lavan) in Hebrew means “white.” But it’s another name for the moon, which is white. But what does the moon do? It reflects the light of the sun. Laban plays the role of a mirror to Jacob, reflecting back to Jacob his own actions so he can feel what it means to be at the receiving end of the same kind of trickery he played on his father and brother. So Jacob must work for Laban seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Being veiled, Jacob does not recognize his bride until he wakes up in the morning. But to his amazement and utter dismay, he discovers that he actually was now married to Rachel’s older sister, Leah! Laban pulled a switch on him.
How does that feel? Not so good. He is learning about the laws of Karma, or what we call in Judaism, “midah keneged midah (measure for measure).” This is part of Jacob’s learning process. This is necessary for his soul’s growth.
Laban was a human mirror for Jacob, reflecting back to him so he can learn important lessons. To be a Tzaddik, one cannot be a deceiver. He still has much to learn. People we meet in life just may be the human mirrors we need in order to learn important lessons. One day we may even thank them. Or not.
Mother knows best!
“The religion of Israel, the religion of Judaism, is the lifelong struggle to become a mensch, to do the right thing by G*d and by our fellow creatures.”
In Homeric Greek literature Achilles is seen as the ultimate hero. The Greeks saw heroism in combat. Achilles’ vulnerable weak point was his heel. The Bible saw heroism in holiness, a mortal combat, if you will, asserting the forces of light over those of darkness. Jacob’s name in Hebrew means “heel,” both in the sense of the actual anatomy as well as one given to treachery and deception. How so? He shares his lentil stew with his ravenous brother only on condition that Esau sell him his birthright. And for the actual blessing of the birthright itself, he masquerades as his brother to deceive his blind father into blessing him instead. Like Achilles, his weakness lay in his heel, i.e., in his heel-like nature.
It took some twenty years of suffering under his uncle Laban’s similar nature to realize that he must fundamentally change his nature to become righteous. Upon that change in his nature, the wrestling angel renames him Israel – one who wrestles with G*d (and overcomes his nature). We can spend a lifetime wrestling with our lower natures our various ego driven, id dominated selves. Freud himself had many works of Kabbalah in his library!
The rabbis teach that what we struggle with most in life to overcome is likely the reason we were reborn into this world to fix. Before we can do Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, we must do Tikkun Neshama!
Fixing ourselves! Not so easy. The religion of Israel, the religion of Judaism, is the lifelong struggle to become a mensch, to do the right thing by G*d and by our fellow creatures. The Bible is not shy at all in showing the faults and imperfections of our faith’s founders and exemplars through the ages. What we should identify with are not their faults and imperfections, but with their spiritual evolution in overcoming them. Most faiths put their founders on a pedestal. We, by contrast, put their faults on display! But that is only so that we may learn from them and take comfort in knowing that while we ourselves may be imperfect, we should never feel intimidated in undertaking our own mindful and conscious effort to work on ourselves. Never give up!
Even if it takes a lifetime of wrestling, it is the very wrestling to do better which is both our Jewish and human calling, as well as our soul’s calling. Lastly, in Jacob’s defense, his mother Rebecca took the blame for Jacob’s stealing the birthright blessing from his brother and tricking his father. She intuitively knew that the gestalt of Jacob’s overall character was more suited to Abraham’s covenantal mission. So the bottom line is, “listen to your mother. She knows what’s best!”
Can You Imagine?
“Can you imagine a deity who puts the honor of His creatures above his own?”
Can you imagine a deity who puts the honor of His creatures above his own? Well imagine no more! Abraham was in his third day – the most painful phase of recovery following adult circumcision, Brit Milah, the sign of the covenant. G*d was visiting Abraham – a mitzvah!, providing comfort and aiding in the healing process. G*d was talking to Abraham, when suddenly, Abraham notices three wandering weary pagans approaching his tent. Without even an “excuse me, oh Deity,” Abraham runs to greet his new guests and wash their hands and feet and arrange a banquet on their behalf with the choicest bread, leben and veal. Wait. What? He hung up on G*d and went to wash and feed some holy schleppers? G*d smiles when he sees His creatures showing loving kindness to one another. Let us be like G*d. No, I mean we should be like Abraham. Okay, we should be like both!
Look within – who ARE you?
“Despite the haters, we will never give up being who we are or our mission in life to improve the world.”
This week’s parasha is Lech Lecha. G*d and Abraham are forming a relationship. Abraham is a disruptor. He discovers that there is but one G*d who actually cares about us and cares about how we treat each other. How revolutionary! In return, in Genesis 12:3, G*d says regarding the children of Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and those who curse you I shall curse, and you shall be a blessing to all the families of the Earth.” The Jewish people are but .02% of the world’s population and yet our contribution to the welfare of humanity is immeasurable. We are indeed a blessing. But many look upon us with jealousy and replace inspiration with hatred. Lech lecha literally means “go to yourself.” G*d is telling each of us to look into our deepest depths and see the beauty and holiness within and a vision of what the world could be one day. Now go fulfill that vision! Despite the haters, we will never give up being who we are or our mission in life to improve the world.
Dealing With Trauma and Addiction:
“…the Golden Path of Moderation, the Shvil HaZahav, is the ideal by which we should live in all matters.”
The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh also has a flood narrative recording a great flood catastrophe similar to that of Noah. But while its narrative is amoral, the Hebrew version links the conflagration to humankind’s moral shortcomings and the proliferation of evil. Water is healing and refreshing, but too much of anything is harmful. Drugs are carefully calibrated to the necessary dosage for healing. Fentanyl, the great scourge of today’s youth, is harmful and fatal at any dose! Wine in small amounts brings cheer and gladness. But even Noah succumbed to an alcoholic stupor shortly upon leaving the ark! As the progenitor of mankind he passed on a genetic predisposition to addictive behaviors, especially in response to trauma. What could be more traumatic than witnessing the near extinction of all life on the planet? Jews who grew up from a young age allowed wine for ritual consumption, tend not to develop alcoholic addiction. However, Jews raised in secular environments where alcohol remains taboo for minors, tend to develop alcoholic addiction in equal numbers to the general population. This goes back to Adam and Eve, from last week’s parashah. Anything seen as taboo becomes the focus of desire and longing. They could eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, yet that which was pointedly off limits spurred their greatest desire. As Maimonides teaches, the Golden Path of Moderation, the Shvil HaZahav, is the ideal by which we should live in all matters.
One Heart; One Love!
“There can be no room in our hearts for racism or bigotry.”
This week’s parasha, Genesis, is the first parasha of the new year, as we begin a new cycle of readings following the joyous festival of Simchat Torah. The Midrash teaches that all humanity is descended from one Holy couple, Adam and Eve, so that no one can say, “my father is greater than your father.” There can be no room in our hearts for racism or bigotry. G-d gave us two eyes, two ears, but only one heart. To quote my rabbi, if I had two hearts I could use one for hating and one for loving. But since I only have one heart I only want to use it for loving! We all come from one human father, and so too, do we all come from one heavenly father. We are all brothers and sisters!